A Broad Focus on Language: An Interview with Katrina Daly Thompson

 By Kathryn Mara

(Part of our “Get to Know us Better” series.)

I step out of the elevator onto the fourteenth floor of Van Hise Hall, and I look to my left to find Dr. Thompson’s door ajar. This is an image I am very accustomed to seeing, not only due to the centrality of her office, but also because I am a frequent visitor, often seeking advice from Dr. Thompson as the Director of Graduate Studies and guidance from her as my professor in five courses thus far. Her office door tells a story itself, from a Wisconsin vanity plate with her Swahili name, Zuhura, to an image of one of her books, Zimbabwe’s Cinematic Arts: Language, Power, Identity. Her office is equally striking and welcoming, with two colorful pillows on her guest chair, as well as Swahili resources galore.

I knock on her door, and she turns away from her desk to greet me, smiling. She knew to expect me during her office hours, and she does not require an explanation of my interview series, because it developed out of a collaborative effort between the two of us. Accordingly, I am able to jump right in.

“Well, the first question, of course, is, how long have you been teaching in the department?”

Dr. Thompson states confidently, “I have been here since Fall 2013.”

“Mmhmm, but before then, you were a graduate student here, right?”

“A long time ago, I was a graduate student in the department,” she says, laughing at my addition. “I finished my PhD here in 2004, so for several of those years, I was teaching as a teaching assistant and then a lecturer, and then I was gone for eight years, teaching at UCLA.”

“And what kind of courses do you teach in the department?” I ask, even though I already know the answer.

“I teach the required pedagogy courses for language instructors (African 575),” she responds, making reference to her position as the Director of the Program in African Languages. Next year, she’s told me, this will change to a new topics course in pedagogy (African 703). “And I teach a course for students who want to learn a less commonly taught language that we don’t offer in a regular classroom setting (African 670/African 697). I am teaching them how to teach themselves a foreign language,” she explains. “And then my third course varies, but it’s usually focused on language,” she says. “For example, last year I taught a course on critical approaches to multilingualism (African 701), and this year, I am teaching something a little bit different that’s on literary ethnography (African 925). It’s a graduate-level methods seminar,” she explains.

I’ve taken four of these courses with Dr. Thompson, and I found them helpful because they introduced me to new, innovative forms of scholarship, ones that recognize the learner’s individual learning styles and validates the researcher’s personal experience. Dr. Thompson’s methodology courses are made all the more significant because she is a practitioner of the theories and methods she teaches, having instructed Swahili for many years, taught herself Shona in graduate school, and now using literary ethnographic elements in her writing.

“Okay. And what research are you currently conducting or working on?” I inquire.

“Well, I just finished a book manuscript called Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings, which is about a Swahili legend, and in it I look at how Swahili speakers use that legend for different purposes conversationally, as well as how it’s been used by western commentators to depict Africans in a negative light. So, I am taking a little bit of a breather after finishing that,” she says, laughing, and I laugh, too, sympathetically. “But,” she adds, “I’ve also been working on a long-term project that’s auto-ethnographic, comparing—or juxtaposing—my experience with getting married in Zanzibar to interviews that I conducted with Swahili women about their weddings and marriages, and trying to integrate personal experience with research and writing in a more literary style.”

“Oh. Both sound very interesting,” I respond, having heard about both projects before and being eager to read the final results. “What sort of graduate student work would you be interested in supervising?” I ask, even a little opportunistically.

“I’m interested in students who are focused on language very broadly, not what we normally think of as formal linguistics, but how languages are actually used in society, the political effects of language use, its effect on identity construction, and how people negotiate taboos and what it’s okay to talk about and not okay to talk about in different cultures. And I’m really interested in students who want to take a critical approach to those issues, who are interested in looking at things from a political angle in the sense of power relations and identity,” she states passionately.

“Very nice,” I respond. “On a more personal level, I know you’re much more familiar with Madison than I am. What’s your favorite thing to do in Madison?”

“Well, I like to eat out, so usually once a week, my family and I are exploring different restaurants, and we’re very exciting about Buraka re-opening, which is an Ethiopian restaurant that’s been in Madison for decades but had closed down for the last couple of years. And it just re-opened. We’re actually going there tonight, which fits with my New Year’s resolution of eating as much Ethiopian food as possible,” she jokes. “Beyond that, we joined the YMCA recently, and we’ve been spending a lot of time there as a family. As I mentioned in class the other day, it’s one of the most diverse places that I’ve found in Madison, which I really enjoy, because having lived in Los Angeles for eight years, I was used to a very diverse environment with people from a lot of different backgrounds. And even though our department is very multicultural, beyond our department, Madison is not as diverse as I would like, so it’s been nice to find a space that does has have more cultural diversity.”

“And as a final question: I see you quite a bit because I’ve enrolled in a number of classes with you in my short time here, and I’ve noticed you wear these earrings with the hand, and I’m just curious what’s the story behind these earrings?”

“This is called the Hand of Fatima,” she says, reaching up to touch the dangling silver hands, hanging from her ears. “It’s a symbol within Islam, but I’ve read about it a little bit, and apparently, it’s also a symbol in Judaism, though I don’t know much about the history of that. But within Islam, Fatima was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughters.” Online, I learn, the hand’s five fingers also symbolize the five pillars of Islam. “And for many years,” Dr. Thompson continues, “I was involved in Muslim groups and practicing Islam, and so I liked the symbolism of that and it is sort of a way of visually signaling my Muslim identity without necessarily wearing a headscarf or other symbols we typically associate with Muslim women,” she explains.

“Well, now I know,” I say with an assured smile.

Before I leave, I take a picture of Dr. Thompson in front of her Swahili alphabet chart, and we briefly discuss the interview series, as well as a few other opportunities in the department. Not surprisingly, she is very engaged in our discussion, because if there is an initiative in African Cultural Studies and Dr. Thompson isn’t leading the charge, inevitably she is involved in some way.